Three months after working on the docks of the now closed, Portsmouth Fishermen’s Cooperative at Portsmouth Harbor offloading boats, Dennis accepted a job working as a deckhand gillnetting on a vessel out of Portsmouth Harbor. His first day on the job the winds consistently blew 35 mph and he spent the entire day miserably bent over the side of the boat. “After that I said I’d give it one more day,” Dennis continues matter-of-factly, “and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
By 1995 Dennis Robillard had a fishing vessel of his own. Since then Dennis has owned three different boats, and currently fishes off of his 2004, 44 foot Novi, Julie Ann II, built in Yarmouth, Maine. Though he has a berth in Portsmouth Harbor, as of lately he’s been fishing out of Gloucester around 4-5 times a week, heading south with his deckhand of 2 years, Kevin, around 2 am each work day. A brief stop at Dunkin Donuts enroute is a must for the two of them. “I like fishing for the independence of it,” shares Dennis during the early morning commute.
Primarily Dennis targets cod and flounder, but he also catches dogfish, monkfish, lobster, skate, and scallops from time to time. Every now and then he’ll pull in something out of the norm. The craziest thing Dennis claims to have ever caught was a 17th century vase, fully intact while gillnetting one day.
Since the market’s been decent at $6 a pound, they also have been taking the time to harvest the livers of monkfish, fulfilling the demand in the Asian market. On an average day Dennis aims for 2 long tows generally 3-4 hours each around 15 miles offshore, but his catch sensor often suggests pulling the catch in earlier than anticipated. For those who don’t remember from Lisa Ann II of Newburyport Harbor’s article posted previously, a catch sensor is a small capsule attached to the cod end of a trawl and electronically transmits a signal to the system onboard alerting the captain when the net appears to be full. This way no additional fuel is wasted towing an already full net. Not all draggers have them for various reasons such as the expense and the regular maintenance they can require, but they are becoming increasingly more common. While onboard, the catch sensor suggested we pull in the second catch early, and for that reason we ended up doing a third tow, although shorter than the first.
All of Dennis Robillard’s catch is offloaded at the end of each day, typically sometime between 3 and 5 pm at the Boston Display Seafood Auction at Gloucester Harbor where it is processed and shipped to seafood auctions throughout New England. When and if there’s a shrimp season he spends the entire season, shrimping. He also spends some time in the spring, usually around May, fishing for squid off the coast of Hyannis, Massachusetts.
When asked what he’d like to share with New Hampshire seafood consumers, Dennis responds, “Be careful what you buy, because a lot of it is from overseas.” He believes this is an important concept for the general public to understand, which in addition to other reasons such as unreasonably low market prices, has led Dennis to help run a Community Supported Fishery, more commonly known as a CSF, based in Kittery, Maine. For those of you who aren’t familiar, perhaps the mention of the acronym CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture may ring some bells. The overarching idea being that individual families buy a share from a farmer, or in this case a fishermen, at a flat rate and for a period of time they receive weekly shares of the farmer’s harvest or the fishermen’s catch available for pick-up from a central location. Though the actual consumer does not get much say in what types or varieties of harvest they will receive, with the right state of mind, that aspect of it can be considered half the fun.
By subjecting yourself to an ever-changing variety of foods, you are encouraged to expand your palate and perhaps try something new, but most importantly you are eating seasonally. For example, in regards to participating in a CSF, rather than grilling out-of-season shrimp (most likely from the far south) for the 4th of July, perhaps you could be grilling some dogfish kebabs or maybe marinating a locally and sustainably caught cod fillet.
Dennis Robillard is the main supplier of fish for the Kittery Community Supported Fishery, organized by members within the Kittery Point Congregrational Church. Dennis drives his catch, previously filleted at the Boston Display Seafood Auction in Gloucester, to the church in Kittery every Thursday where members are able to pick up their weekly share of fish. Members can purchase a 1 or 2 lb. share lasting 8 weeks at a time. This particular CSF is now in the midst of their second season with just over 45 members. In the next year they’re hoping to expand to York and Portsmouth. “I had read of Cape Ann Fresh Catch doing it, and thought it was a novel idea, and I knew I would get paid more for my fish,” comments Dennis. By selling his fish directly to the public in the form of filets he’s able to get several more dollars per pound than he would if he sold the fish whole to auction.
When asked what a sustainable fishery means to him, he responds, “We have to harvest the fish correctly and fairly so there’s a future in fishing, not just for myself, but anyone else who wants to participate in the fishery, whether it’s on a boat, on the docks, in a market or whatever.” By managing a CSF he is able to share his ideologies of a sustainable fishery with his members, and they in turn support the future of the fishery by eating not only locally, but seasonally. From his daily catch, Dennis enjoys eating redfish and whiting most, and will never say no to a plate of fried clams. His one and only hobby he claims is fishing, but strictly salt water, and he jokingly adds, “and making Kevin’s (his deckhand’s) life miserable.” They both share a a quick laugh on the ride home.
Dennis lives in Eliot, Maine with his wife and his 2 kids who are currently attending Marshwood High School. Learn more about the local CSF and how you could participate here.